American Flat Track has been an officially sanctioned championship since 1954, and ruled the motorcycling world in the 50s and 60s as a dangerous outlet for rebellious youths to get their kicks. The series has survived all these years later, but fell out of fashion for some decades. It’s back and it’s better than ever with closer competition, incredibly talented riders, and bikes that are totally unparalleled. Much of that success is owed to AMA Pro Racing CEO, Michael Lock.
Lock spent his career working as an executive with Triumph, Ducati, and Lamborghini before leaving the OEM world to pursue a revival of AFT and AMA Pro Racing under the Daytona Motorsports Group umbrella owned by Jim France, co-owner of NASCAR. As a motorcycle fan, that’s pretty much the dream job, right? And with the rapid growth of American Flat Track in recent years, it seems that Lock’s influence has not gone unnoticed.
Credit to Mr. Lock for giving me about an hour of his time, despite his very busy schedule as the 2021 season kicks off shortly. He provided incredibly comprehensive—and occasionally verbose—responses to my simplistic questions. I was perfectly happy to sit back and soak up the wealth of information. I did my best to ask him questions that he had not been asked before, so if you’ve heard other interviews with him, you might still learn something by reading on. I enjoyed the conversation, and I hope you do, too.
BB: You left Lamborghini America in 2014 to take over as CEO of a racing series that the average American, hell probably the average motorcycle rider, had never heard of. Why did you make that decision, and all these years later why was it the right choice?
ML: Well, um, bear in mind that prior to Lamborghini, where I had just over three years, I had spent the previous twenty years working in and around the motorcycle business. I’d worked for Honda when I left college in England, I worked for Triumph Motorcycles to help bring them back to the U.S. I ran Ducati North America for ten years. So my roots, and honestly my soul, is in and around motorcycles.
And while the experience of Lamborghini was amazing, and the product was amazing, and having access to all of the resources of the Volkswagen group was quite an eye-opener. I felt like a small-town boy. But I really felt like motorcycles were calling me, and because I had worked in senior management for a number of different manufacturers, your next option has to be different.
I’d known Jim France, who is the principal shareholder of AMA racing, and he runs a small series called NASCAR as well. I’ve known Jim for a long time, I’ve known him since the mid-nineties when I first came here. And we met and he talked about his love of Triumph bikes, and I vowed that we would build him one, one of the first ones that we imported to the U.S. and we did that.
I’ve kept in touch with Jim all these years and he and I were having a conversation about what would be needed to do in order to resurrect flat track, which once upon a time was the biggest motorcycle racing series in the U.S. for a long time in fact. And it’s the only form of professional motorcycle racing which can genuinely claim to be born here. You know all the other types of motorcycle racing are from Europe or from Asia and however well they’ve done here are effectively imported concepts. Whereas flat track has got this romance and nostalgia and it comes from the heartland.
Jim is very fond of it, and he and I were talking about, you know, “What would you have to do? Is it possible to resurrect it from the lowly place it has got to?” I was intrigued by the challenge, so I looked at it, did some research, and presented to Jim and the board an action plan of what I thought needed to be done, what investment needed to be made, and reasonably what they could expect. They liked the report and Jim asked me not only to implement it, but to come in house and take over as CEO of AMA Pro racing. It was the right opportunity at the right time.
BB: I read an interview you did back in 2016. You said the modern fan wants to be able to buy a ticket online, park in a parking lot, buy a decent beer. They want to sit in air conditioning, have closed-circuit TV, have an app, good quality audio, etc. Are you satisfied with how the series has progressed in that manner across the last five years? And conversely, what does a 2021 fan want that a 2016 fan didn’t know they needed?
ML: That’s a good question. Listening to you reel all of that off I’m thinking I want to go to that race! I wasn’t being facetious when I said that. My observation when I first got involved in this sport was that there were a number of venues we went to which were difficult to find, were way out of town off the beaten track, the facilities looked like they hadn’t been modernized since 1979, they hadn’t been painted since 1959. And the food was something I couldn’t look my own family in the eye and force them to eat. How is this a fun day out?
Tastes change, don’t they? There were things that people used to do, there was mass entertainment, I mean god I remember being a kid and going to rock concerts, and you went home stinking of urine. Why? Because people didn’t bother going all the way to the restroom. And no one would put up with that now. Well, maybe some people would. We’ve moved on. There was a general shift from money to time.
It used to be that money was the thing in short supply and you were just grateful to get out of the house and go and hang with your friends. Now, it’s time. People don’t have time, we live differently than we did a generation ago. Particularly weekend time, which for a lot of people is when they’re not working. That’s now valuable family time, in a way that it was not a generation ago. If you want to go to the races and spend a whole of Saturday getting there and the whole evening enjoying the racing and drinking and eating and getting home on Sunday, you’ve got to justify that. And you’ve got to justify it by going somewhere that’s at least semi-civilized, and we had a problem with that.
So we identified that fairly early on and said what have we got to do? Well, we can’t assume that everybody is going to go to a flat track race on a motorcycle, because they don’t. A lot of people go by car. Where do they get to park the car, in a muddy field? Yeah, that’s awesome. And the acid test for me is my wife. Take my wife to a race and if she pulls a face when she gets there and says I’m never coming back here, we’ve got a problem. I think that a lot of people relate to that.
Sitting on an uncomfortable seat with the wind blowing sideways and all you can do is buy a ten dollar beer that tastes like it’s water with a little bit of food coloring in it is not what people want to do anymore. We’ve got to find a way as rights holders for pro sports to be able to up the entertainment value. You know I took one of my kids to go and see the San Francisco Giants play. He’s a big baseball fan, so we got two tickets to go to the Giants. I’m not a big baseball fan, so I was intrigued to go and see what the experience was like. Oh my god! You went behind the grandstand in this beautiful lobby, and there’s some guy flipping pizzas, actually flipping pizzas and putting them in a brick fire oven, and then there’s a bar with about thirty different craft brews, twenty-five of which I’d never even heard of.
It’s an interesting thing, because baseball is a blue-collar sport. It’s a big sport, but it’s one that has been in a gentle decline for a long time, and young people do not follow baseball like they used to. So going to the Giants, and yeah, okay, they’ve got a lot of money and power, but what are they doing with money and power? These things are about exploring what fans want to do in the future, because the easiest thing in the world is to sit in your man den at home with your four close friends, hook up to your high-definition 4k 84 inch tv with surround sound and have a much better experience watching racing than if you go to the event. That is the death of events.
We are exploring how we innovate that at-track experience. We can’t beat the 84 inch tv and the small fridge with 30 craft brews in it in your own house. We can’t beat that, but what we can do is beat that experience by offering things that you can’t get at home. You can’t get access to the riders, the smell and the noise of the bikes, you can’t recreate that on TV. So we have to give fans better and better access. We have to open up the race paddock in a way that they can almost reach out and touch the bikes or the riders, because you can’t do that on TV. I noted with a lot of interest what NHRA do. They basically treat the race paddock as a fan friendly environment, even while the racing is going on. Now, okay, you have to have a lot of security in there because you don’t want your six year old kid flattened by a hot rod that’s going between the paddock and the strip. So they have to organize it, but the excitement of being there and around it and feeling like you’re part of the show is something you can’t recreate on TV. I’m mindful of the fact that we need to elevate both experiences, we need the TV or the streaming platform to give you maximum customizable experiences and insight and somebody holding your hand and talking you through what’s going on on the day. But equally for the at-event where we need for people to turn up and pay for the putting on the races, we need them to be able to have an alternative experience. You never get there. If I look at what we’re going to do in 2021 compared to back in 2016, we’ve come a long way, but compared to the Giants we’ve still got a ways to go.
BB: With the growth of the last five years behind you, what will the series look like five years from now?
ML: Hopefully bigger! A lot of the modernization of the administration of the sport is behind us. The improvements we’ve made in communications and marketing and giving fans an opportunity to really dive into the sport, I think that we’re good in that respect and we’ll stay on top of technology and so on. I think that we have an open sport now that is fan friendly and gives them the content they want.
I’d like to go to better and better venues. We have just signed an agreement with the SMI group, who own Charlotte and Atlanta and Las Vegas and Bristol, we’ve signed a long term agreement with them to be able to bring American Flat Track to their facilities which are amongst the best in the country. I’d like to think that five years from now that relationship will have developed and deepened and we can promise our fans, particularly new fans, that if you come out for a day of American Flat Track, it’s an awesome day out and it wasn’t a waste of time and it wasn’t better watching it at home.
I’d like more money to get into the paddock. You look at our riders and they are fierce athletes, and like a lot of pro athletes they have a potential earning career from about the age of 18 to about the age of 34. I’d like them to do well during that time. I’d like them to be compensated for the entertainment they bring, like the guys from Supercross or IndyCar. I would like our athletes to earn like professional athletes. It’s better now than it’s been for a long time, but it’s not there yet. Some of that is them being recipients of sponsorship money, whether it be start money or bonus money or championship point money or personal sponsors. There’s a conventional route to all that. It’s our job to open the door to make the sport more attractive to potential sponsors.
And also the athletes themselves have to realize that it’s not just about being good on the bike, it’s about being good off the bike as well. It’s about giving people a reason to become a fan of you. That’s something that’s relatively new to our group, because they were racing for themselves and the hardcore fans for a long long time. Now we’re engaging a broader public, and we need to up the entertainment value of the series, and that’s access to riders and them being entertaining on camera as well as on the bikes. There’s a lot of work to do in that area, but we’ve got a plan to do it.
And the other thing I’d like to do is to take American Flat Track to compete in other destinations. We’ve had interest from Europe for off-season mini-tournaments to be put on in soccer stadiums or such. Our sport is really easy to pick up, transport, put down and put on a show, and I’d love to do that.
We took our top eight riders a couple of years ago to the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Lord March saw us and said wow, that looks like speedway on steroids. Which of course it is. And he invited us to go over and showcase our riders and the bikes and technology at the hillclimb. Obviously they only went up the hillclimb, they hadn’t built a dirt oval for us, but we got to go out in the same group as the F1 cars. So you can imagine there’s like 200,000 people there. When the F1 cars come out, everybody lines the hillclimb. So all these people got to see the bikes, and they were probably thinking “Who the hell are these cowboys?” But it made a real impression. We came back with enough interest and excitement to think we could do something with this. When we’re not in regular season, which is 6 months of the year, I want to give the teams and the sponsors and the kids who ride an opportunity to create more experiences and earn more money. We’d have to do that by going abroad, whether it’s by going to Western Europe or Brazil or Australia or Japan, I’d love to do that and I think we’re close to being able to announce something on that in the next couple of years.
BB: Switching gears a bit here, it’s fair to say that Indian has dominated the Super Twins class of American Flat Track for the last four years with the FTR750 race bike. What makes that team so successful in this series?
ML: A couple of things. Firstly, the folks at Indian were very smart in using external resources that understood flat track racing and understood how to build an engine and a motorcycle that would be perfect for the racing. So Indian worked with Swiss Auto over in Europe to design and R&D the engine, and they worked with S&S who are a performance company here in the U.S. who understand V-twins very well and the principal at S&S has been involved with racing for forty years. And what they did was they built from a clean sheet of paper a motorcycle that was designed specifically to run on dirt at high speed turning left.
And their competition, largely, are bikes that are built using street bike engines. And even though we give those bikes a lot of leeway on tuning and using aftermarket parts, ultimately the characteristics you need for a street bike engine—meaning it needs to be durable, it needs to conform to gas emissions and noise emissions, it needs to have a flexible powerband—all of those restrictions are off when you design a race engine. And the Indian engine has a kind of lazy feel about it. It has a huge flywheel effect, which means that when you’re rolling on the throttle coming out of the corner, and this is the critical thing about two wheel flat track racing, is corner exit. That’s where you win and lose races.
You’re on dirt, you’re leaned over, you’re likely sideways, you’re probably slipping at least the rear tire, if not both tires, and you’re rolling on the throttle to try and get maximum traction and forward motion. And as you can imagine that’s a really delicate balance. But having a bike with a great big heavy crankshaft and weight attached to that crankshaft to give it a lot of inertia, means that the rider has got a lot of control over all of those crazy things going on. Versus the streetbike engine which is like an enthusiastic puppy, you point it in the direction and it runs as fast as it can. On asphalt it’s different, but on dirt you’re battling sideways variables, forward variables, limited traction, you’ve got no front brake. There’s a lot of things going on here and the Indian is the perfectly designed bike for that challenge.
There is some history of this in flat track that once every decade or so one of the manufacturers comes along with this perfectly designed machine for flat track. And if you’re racing against it using a production-based bike, you’ve gotta be clever and you’ve gotta be innovative, and you’ve gotta try a million things. You know, not many have landed a punch on Indian in the four years that they’ve been winning the championship, but they’re getting closer! I’m expecting to see a bit more unpredictable racing this year in 2021.
BB: Tell me why you think Harley Davidson cancelling their factory racing team is a mistake.
ML: Well, look, ultimately only they know whether it was a mistake or not, and maybe they don’t even know that now. We talked with Harley-Davidson long and hard over the last two or three years and they have developed really quite an exceptional racing bike. Their XG750 is a great race bike, it’s just unfortunate it’s come along at exactly the same time as Indian designing a clean-sheet purpose-built race bike. And I think Harley have suffered by comparison for that, but actually they set out on a much tougher road than Indian did. They wanted to bring street technology to prove they could make it work on the race track.
So what they’ve done is they have cancelled their factory team with Vance & Hines. Instead what they’re doing is they’re going to fund individual racing teams, this year they’re funding a team called Latus Racing who are out of Oregon, George Latus is a Harley dealer and has been involved in racing for many many years. And Harley-Davidson are directly supporting that team in Super Twins, and they’re directly supporting some competitors in Production Twins.
The way Harley explain it, they’re going back to more of the roots of what they did, that instead of outsourcing the whole operation, they’re giving race teams access to their R&D resources, engineering resources, in-house in Wisconsin, and maybe they develop the bike quicker with that process than they did with the big glamorous external factory team.
Time will tell.
BB: The series made some adjustments last year to allow production-based bikes to catch up to the full-race spec factory team, but they still ran away with the championship in 2020, winning every single round. Are there any plans to make any further changes for 2021 to allow others to compete for victory?
ML: What we had been asked for by the production bike engine competitors [for the 2020 season] was the ability to make more power and more torque. And we raised the cubic capacity limit on their engines up to 900 ccs, so they could play with bore or stroke or both. And they asked that we open up the diameter of the bore of throttle bodies so they could run more air and more fuel into the engine. That’s what we were asked for, we did some testing and evaluation and we wrote modified rules. It didn’t seem to make very much difference as you can see from the end result.
And I think that everybody concluded as the season went on that more power doesn’t necessarily get you to the front of the pack in flat track racing. In fact, very often the bike with the flattest torque curve, gentlest torque curve, and lowest peak horsepower wins races, very often. There are exceptions, you know you can go to some of the mile tracks where they’re basically on the gas the whole way around, even through the corners, and carrying momentum through the corners. And there horsepower is a big advantage. But you know we have half mile tracks, we have quarter mile tracks, we have TT tracks where in addition to turning left they also turn right and there’s at least one jump on the track. So maximum horsepower gives way to things like throttle control, suspension setup, front/rear weight balance, all of these other factors play a bigger part.
So I think at the end of 2020, those who had asked for more liberties in engine tuning scratched their head and said ‘Okay, well that didn’t work against this Indian.” and what they asked for for 2021 was the ability to do two things. One was that we would relax our rules with regard to traction control. Up until this year we have never allowed electronic traction control devices, partly because of the traditional nature of the sport, and partly because we couldn’t figure out whether it would actually bring anybody any advantage instead of starting an arms race on cost. But again the non-race bike teams, the production engine teams, have asked us to give them the ability to start exploring traction control options, so we have done that. And secondly they have asked for us to allow them to change the firing order and the firing pattern. So if you’ve got, for example, a V-twin with a 180 degree firing pattern, one piston top dead center, the other piston bottom dead center, they’ve asked to be able to change that firing order to effectively change the pulses that come out of the engine through the clutch to the transmission. We evaluated that, we did some testing in the off season to check that it was safe, which we concluded it was, so we’ve allowed them to do that.
So we’ll see this year if either of those changes result in a different dynamic on the race track. I suspect that it will make a difference, it’s just a matter of how much. But in the meantime, half of our paddock now, half of our race paddock in Super Twins are running with Indians because out of the box it’s a winning bike.
What’s happened in some respects is that the competition between personalities has almost taken on more importance than competition between brands. Because one brand is currently dominating with a superior machine. So people are turning their attention to ‘Will Briar Bauman, the number one plate holder, win the championship three years in a row?’ He’s still a young guy and super talented, but the pressure of back-to-back-to-back championships is quite extreme. His main rival is a guy called Jared Mees, who is a five time champion, and has been doing almost like the, have you seen the movie Rocky IV? Where he goes into the forest and he’s lifting logs?
BB: Yeah, sure.
ML: So Jared Mees is doing almost his Rocky IV over the winter. He’s getting super fit, fitter than he’s ever been, more focussed, comeback year. He might come out this year with a focus and lean mean and fit and give the champion a run for his money. We’ve got some up and coming riders as well.
You know as far as the series is concerned, we just want to make sure that it’s great entertainment. That it’s safe for the competitors and it’s great entertainment for the fans. And if it is, we continue to grow the sport. And if we grow the sport, our partners are happy and so is the broadcaster. So whether it’s a battle between Yamaha and Indian or Harley-Davidson and Yamaha, that’s great, but in the absence of that being unpredictable, we look to the competitors and their personalities and that of their crew and family. Flat track is an old sport, and it’s been done by people in small towns you’ve never heard of all over America for decades. And that’s a great story. And with having a broadcast partnership with NBC, which is not only a cable show for every round, but also now we’re on their NBC Sports app, you can livestream the whole day from practice to qualifying to everything.
From my point of view, I just want it to keep growing. And you pick the lowest hanging fruit.
BB: With the recent announcement that NBCSN would be dying off, where will we be able to see AFT from that point forward?
ML: Well, NBC Sports Network will run all the way through 2021, we will be on that channel for the whole of our season. I think that NBC have announced that they’re going to streamline the number of cable channels they’ve got. They have an extraordinarily large number of cable channels. Many of which are not branded NBC. And with the shift from cable viewing audiences to OTT platform audiences, they are consolidating their cable channels and getting rid of some content that’s not attractive, and transferring as quickly as they can onto the Peacock app that they and a lot of the rest of us believe is the future. As far we’re concerned, 2021 continues with a conventional route to market. We’re on NBCSN for our one hour show, which covers every event, and we’re on NBC Sports Gold for the live streaming.
In 2022, I don’t know yet, how it’s going to end up. We may end up like a lot of other sports transferring onto some of their other channels. There are some big sports on NBCSN that aren’t going to go away just because they rebrand and consolidate the channels. I don’t know if we end up on USA or CNBC or some other channel, but all of the real investment and growth is going into the digital audience, of which we’re already on. I don’t see anything hugely unpredictable happening. I think the strategy is clear for them and for other broadcasters.
BB: Could you comment on the success of things like The One Moto races in Portland, the advent of Roland Sands’ Super Hooligans class, and flat track’s inclusion in the X-Games, and how that affects AFT and growth of the sport in general?
ML: Yeah, look, there’s no doubt that two big factors have caused quite a shift in the motorcycle business in the last decade. One is that the Baby Boomer generation, who have driven sales and demand and product for thirty years in the bike business are aging out as active users of motorcycles. It’s one thing to buy yourself that Porsche you always dreamed of, and in your 60s or 70s and just toodle around at the weekend and enjoy it. It’s another thing to buy yourself a motorcycle in your 60s and try to toodle around on that. So the Baby Boomers who drove the enormous success of motorcycling in the 80s, the 90s, and the early 2000s, are getting to an age where they are not going to be that active anymore, number one. Number two, the financial crash in 2008 and 2009 wiped out a lot of the valuable assets a lot of people had, wiped out employment, and what happened was that motorcycles, which are a luxurious toy, suddenly became somewhat disposable.
The fallout from those two factors was that there are still going to be young guys and gals who want to ride motorcycles, but between about 2010 and 2015, new bike sales had slumped. So people started seeking out the older bikes. And they started seeking out a kind of simpler relationship between you and the machine. You look at any modern motorcycle and you need to plug it in to a laptop to talk to it. And I remember the generation I grew up with, that if you didn’t have much money and you were a teenager and you wanted a bike, you learned how to keep that bike on the road whether you liked it or not. You go back to the days of—dread the thought—contact breaker points and coils that leaked and all of these kinds of things. You had a relationship with the bike, the bike was mechanical, a mechanical horse. Fast forward to now and the bike’s smarter than you are, and the bike is fast asleep at 90 miles an hour while you’re white knuckled.
I think there was a nostalgia to get back to a simpler relationship to a bike that was more rudimentary, a bike that you could fix, a bike that you could customize yourself, you didn’t have to go to dealers and have them plug it in to a laptop.
And you referenced things like Roland Sands or the success of The One Show or Handbuilt in Austin, and I think that’s all part of this. People wanted to rediscover motorcycling not as a way of doing 200 miles an hour and checking it off the bucket list, but as a way of enjoying travelling. It’s the journey not the destination, which is an old cliche, but on a bike, man, you feel it. So I think that the catalyst for this rediscovering of motorcycling were economic and demographic driven, but the result is, and you can see it in what’s going on even now that motorcycle manufacturers have caught up to the game, that $25,000 superbikes which used to sell in huge numbers are now a rare beast. And what they’re riding is bikes that they found on eBay or Cycle Trader from the 80s, 90s, or 2000s, there are lots of those around, but the values are soaring. Or they’re buying simpler new bikes.
I just watched the launch yesterday of Harley-Davidson’s new adventure tourer bike. I say new, but the first ever! And yet in the movie, the very slick beautiful movie that Harley put together for this, establishes their credentials from decades and decades ago, insisting that they were really the first adventure touring bike. And you can see their point. And so what people want to do now is they want to blend into the country. They don’t want to make a lot of noise and be anti-social. Motorcycling has gone from a kind of anti-social pursuit into a social one. I’m not sure what I think about that, but nonetheless, it’s happened.
So really, motorcycling has changed a lot. And I say all of that because flat track is part of that nostalgic bit of motorcycling when race bikes were simpler and you could recognize sitting in the grandstand what you were looking at. You understood the bike, you understood the racing. It wasn’t all technical, it wasn’t about split second lap times, it was just about going out there and having fun. We have been partly lucky recipients of that, and partly that we’ve been conscious of it and made sure that as we’ve grown American Flat Track that we’ve broken down the barriers to entry, we’ve made it more accessible, we’ve tried to make it fun again, we’ve put a little zip of glamour in there, and we’ve got it back on TV. Which, by the way, it had been absent from TV for decades. So we haven’t done anything super clever, but what we’ve tried to do is join the dots up.
BB: Your road course counterparts per se at MotoAmerica are going through a similar resurgence along a similar timeline as AFT. Do you think this is indicative of a renewed interest in motorcycle racing, and perhaps riding in general, or is the future of two-wheeled transport still doom and gloom?
ML: I think the first reason is that the people at MotoAmerica are doing a good job. They’re enthusiasts, they want to present road racing in a very pure manner. It’s an elegant sport, it’s a high tech sport, and I think they’re doing a great job. I think they’ve had a headwind for much of the time they’ve been doing this, but credit to them they’ve kept on and they promote their sport very well.
The second thing is, yes, there is undoubtedly a renewed interest in motorcycling. You know, motorcycling took some real hits in 2009, 10, 11, and 12. Those were some pretty grim years and there was a lot of consolidation in motorcycling. Maybe some of the things that went away were things that maybe needed to go away, and it’s leaner, meaner, and fitter now, which are good raw ingredients for a resurgence.
They’re doing some pretty interesting things at MotoAmerica. In addition to the super sport superbikes, you know, they launched this race using baggers.
BB: That was actually going to be my next question. That series is experimenting with some oddball classes to attract more attention to the series, like King of the Baggers, as I’m sure you’re aware. Do you have anything similar up your sleeve for AFT? Can we see a Spec Racer Trail 125 class or maybe an electric class coming soon or something?
ML: Well we already have our equivalent of the baggers, which is our 450 singles class. You know they’re motocross bikes that have been adapted to run in flat track. They weren’t designed to run in flat track, but we’ve refined that class. And it’s one that everyone across the country can relate to. You know, everybody knows a motocross bike. Half of the country have owned them.
That was our attempt. We did that in 2016, we established the AFT Singles class. And it’s funny, it really polarized people. When we came out with it half of the people got it straight away and said wow, there is a sub-ten-thousand-dollar route to professional flat track racing now, and the racing is going to be awesome and close. The other half of the people said “What the hell are you doing putting motocross bikes on our track?” But that class has not only survived, it has flourished. I think we’re set with something that reaches out and touches people in a relevant way.
As far as the baggers thing goes for MotoAmerica, my observation would be, you know, having lived through the singles thing, do it for two or three years and if people still love it, it’s good. It’s a visual spectacle, there’s no doubt about that. And if it’s got longevity beyond the novelty value, then it’s something that’s going to give value to MotoAmerica for years to come, so I wish them luck with that.
As far as electric goes, we’re exploring this at the moment. A lot of people in flat track would cry heresy, I suspect at the notion of electric flat track bikes, but it does raise some interesting questions. The technology at the moment as it stands as I understand it, means that on a short race like a quarter mile track with a limited number of laps, none of our bikes would keep up with electric bikes. But on a long race like a mile at 15 minutes, none of the electric bikes would finish the race.
There’s not, I think, a great opportunity presenting itself for a path to have electric versus internal combustion. But is there space for an exhibition class or to develop a limited championship and run them on TTs and short tracks to begin with? Yeah, maybe. We have some interest from a couple of motorcycle manufacturers in exploring this, as they see it as part of their long-term strategy to develop electric powertrains for street bikes, they would like to explore this in racing. Flat track lends itself to such a thing because the races are short and fast. We’re having a look at it, maybe in the next couple of years something will come out.
BB: Bringing it back to The One Show, they had an electric flat track exhibition race up there last year, and it was a blast. It was really really cool.
ML: I don’t doubt it at all. I got to know the guys at Alta Motors quite well before they went under, and they had developed a flat track bike, and it was a beauty. I think they took that up to Portland, and I viewed with interest how that did. I think there’s great potential, you just have to shuffle all of the pieces around to fit it in, and not be late, but not be too early either.
BB: Walk us through some of the adversity the series faced in 2020, as it relates to the coronavirus pandemic, and how you managed to overcome that. How did you manage to pack in a full championship between July and October?
ML: Well we were on lockdown from March until May, like a lot of other people. And that gave us the opportunity, once we all worked out how to use Microsoft Teams, that gave us the opportunity to communicate internally and externally. And ask ourselves the question, what do we have to do to get the racing done? I’m very fortunate that our sister company NASCAR have a lot of resources. And they wanted to go racing every bit as much as we did. And they have great contacts with legal council, with state governors offices, with public health authorities. People that we never would have known how to get to. And NASCAR helped us craft a set of protocols, it ended up being a 39 page document, on how we would run our races, how we would ensure our race paddock was a bubble, how we would change the hard-cards that we issued to all of the competitors from a dumb card to a smart card with a barcode on it for track and trace. We downloaded a lot of this protocol from NASCAR who were very quick in developing it, we adapted it for our sport.
We went into negotiations with venues and public health offices saying “look, we want to come and race, we will keep the public and the race paddock completely separate, and we will show you how we will do that. If you want to limit our fan capacity to 50 percent or 25 percent, that’s fine, but we need fans there, it’s a necessary economics part of the race series.” You know unlike a lot of big sports which derive their income from TV contracts, us on TV is a relatively new thing, and it means that we’re not making a lot of money on TV, so we needed both elements. We needed TV and fans. So we presented the protocols, we showed how we would keep to them, and we followed instruction from local authorities as to how to manage it. And you know the other thing is that we’re small. It’s not like the NFL or even NASCAR where you’re having to manage audiences in the tens of thousands. We knew that we could go to these venues and if we could get a crowd of fifteen hundred in there, or two thousand, in a speedway that held ten thousands, we could ensure social distancing and we could pay the bills. We’ve got a small footprint, we’ve got a small team here.
We were just determined to do it, and two months of lockdown staring at the walls at home gave us a lot of time to be able to meticulously put that together. And I have to say looking back on it, it worked. We did what we said we would do. We had no outbreaks of covid in our race paddock, we had no evidence of events we went to were superspreaders in the grandstands. We did OK. And we’ve tweaked and refined those proposals this year and we’re ready to enact the same thing, although I have to say a lot of the venues we’re scheduled to go to this year are already starting to relax a little bit some of the more complex restrictions we had last year. So I’m optimistic looking at the news everyday with vaccine rollout and hospitalized cases going down, I’m hopeful that by this summer we should be able to run with a lot less onerous protocols. Fingers crossed!
BB: We’re a handful of days out from the 2021 series beginning. Any predictions for how this season will go? If I’m placing bets, who should I be betting on?
ML: I always get into trouble when I answer that question. You know our athlete group is very tight knit and we run the sport like a big family, and I say that in the truest sense in that we all fall out with each other and then make up, and you could almost shoot a reality TV show about the sport rather than the actual racing.
What to watch out for this year? We’ve got three classes.
So we have the Super Twins class, we have a sponsorship with Mission Foods, who are going to bring hospitality to the paddock at every race, and we’re all going to be dining on a diet of tortillas and salsa. I think that will be a highlight this year. It beats the dog-burger we normally have to eat at some of these speedways. The Super Twins class, the reigning champion Briar Bauman is still at the peak of his form, he’s a relatively young rider, he’s naturally very talented. Sometimes he looks like he’s not really trying. He’s the guy to beat. But Jared Mees, is nowhere near a veteran, he’s still a young man in his early thirties. He’s super fit, super determined, he’s got a great team around him. Those two will be going back and forth all year. But there are three or four others of guys who started to win races last year and get settled with their teams. So I think that class will be, if not wide open, will have a lot of unpredictable podiums this year.
The Production Twins class, which is reserved for bikes that have a street bike engine in them. There are a lot of Harleys in that class and a lot of good riders on them. So I think we’ll see if Harley will dominate that class in the way that Indian dominated the Super Twins class, or whether the Yamahas and the Kawasakis and the KTMs can haul them in.
Then we have a third class, and any one of your fans from Jalopnik will know, who follow MotoGP, will know that Moto3 is the one that serves up extraordinary entertainment. The bikes are light, the riders tend to be young—teenagers or early twenties and not yet in touch with their mortality. In our series we have AFT Singles, which are 450 cc liquid cooled four-stroke engines in motocross chassis. If anyone is used to seeing motocross or Supercross, these bikes are similar. They start out as bikes you can buy in the showroom anywhere in America for nine grand, and you swap out suspension and wheels on them and you’ve effectively got a 450 AFT racer. The bikes are incredibly closely matched, whether it’s a Kawasaki, a Suzuki, a Yamaha, a Honda, a KTM, a Husqvarna, any of them, there is really a sweet spot for that size of engine at the moment, and no bike has a domination. So what do you see? You see a pack of six, eight, or twelve riders for the whole race and you don’t know who’s going to win until the last lap, in fact you might not know going into turn three on the last lap. It throws up incredible entertainment.
We had envisaged that class as a way of new young riders getting into the sport, and becoming pros and it would be a low cost of entry class. And that’s true, but what we never anticipated was the extraordinary entertainment value of these kids slipstreaming each other three inches apart, nine wide, going into turn three and you’re thinking “How are they going to get through that corner? Oh, they did!” And that makes for great entertainment. We’ve got some real characters in that class as well. Some up and coming kids who know no fear versus some seasoned veterans who are very smart and that clash of cultures happens every week at the race track. There’s a lot to look out for this year.
One thing you can pretty much rely on with flat track, and it’s partly because of the nature of it, of loose dirt and an oval, is that nobody can really run away with it. There are so many equalizing factors, so you get close racing. Also the races are short format. The longest race we have all evening is fifteen minutes long. So for people who are new to the sport, they can see nine races in an evening with knockouts and semis and qualifying for the main event. You can follow the stories of the event as it goes on and figure out who’s on form and who’s got setup right, because you will see these riders on the track three times or four as the evening goes on. Unlike some motorsport which are very long form races where it seems that after the start not very much happens until the last three laps, that’s not really the case with flat track. It’s short and sweet.
I’ve got teenage kids and they will watch flat track because it’s over quickly. If I had to take them to a race that was 45 minutes long or an hour or dread the thought four hours, they would look at me like I was insane. And that’s one of the challenges we have in motorsport now, you know? Everybody who works in pro motorsport knows that formats that worked amazingly well twenty or thirty years ago are challenged now because people want to live differently. They’ve got their phone in front of them, they’re easily distracted. Keeping their attention on a race is much easier if the race is a six laps sprint. And the top six guys go through and you get to see them again an hour from now against the top six guys from another race. We’ve really tried to refine that, to grow audience so you don’t need a degree in flat track to be able to understand what you’re seeing.
Some people accuse us of dumbing down the sport, but I look at it very differently, that what we’re trying to do is make it more accessible.
BB: Yeah, the one thing I’ve always wanted in racing is more rules that I don’t understand.
ML: (laughs) Yeah, well, our rulebook is a small format book that you can hold in one hand, and it does have 118 pages. That sounds like a lot, but there are no long words in it, and there’s an enormous amount of flexibility for the competitors to be left alone to come up with their own creativity. Most of the rulebook is about safety and processful gridding, which the fans don’t care about. The fans care about who’s that guy, who is the hero, who’s the villain? That’s what people want to see. Bar to bar action. And we certainly give them a bunch of that in a race evening.
BB: Safety is always a priority in motorsport, and there is perhaps none quite so dangerous as flat track motorcycles. How is the series stepping up to the safety demands of such an intense extreme sport?
ML: Yeah, I mean you’re dead on with that. Safety and danger in motorsports are ever present. There are variables in flat track that mean we have to be extra vigilant. We’ve done a lot in the last few years, all the way from examining and raising standards for rider protective equipment. We have changed all of the regulations around helmets. We are engaged with Arai, who are our series partner to look at designs of helmets that use the best shell, which is a road racing shell, but is designed with airflow characteristics that are more suitable for flat track. You don’t get a lot of dust in a road race, but you get a lot of dust in a flat track race. Looking at ways we can improve product design like that will definitely lead to safety.
We’ve worked with Dianese, who are a series partner, to develop a flat-track-specific airbag suit. I followed all of the R&D they’ve put in over a decade into MotoGP and saw the tremendous safety advantages of airbag suits for motorcycling. I lobbied them to rework all of the algorithms to work for flat track, so they worked with the Indian factory team for a couple of years and put sensors all over the leathers of the racers to work out the dynamics of flat track and figure out where the risk was. Then subsequently Dianese worked with the official Yamaha team to further develop that. So in the areas of helmets and race suits and technical specifications and standards for gloves and boots, we took care of improving the safety specific to the rider.
Then we looked at external conditions that make a large difference, and clearly the biggest risk for a rider is when they fall off. They fall off either going into corners or coming out of corners. We did a lot of analysis and worked out that the likelihood of a crash in a straight line on the front or back straight is tiny and afforded only by collisions between riders. Going into corners and coming out of corners, big opportunity to fall off, and when you fall off, big opportunity to get hurt. We use a particular type of airbag fence, and have done for a decade. We’ve considerably stepped up the deployment of it. We used to travel with about 25 pieces of 6-foot long huge airbag fences. They’re a pain in the butt to transport and clean and install, but they are tremendously effective in absorbing energy and impact from a flying rider or a flying bike or both. So we’ve increased the deployment of the airbag fences from around 25 per race to 75 per race. To the point now where we have every single piece of the track covered where the airbag is an advantage.
There are areas where it’s not an advantage. You don’t want it to be like a bumper in a pinball machine. It’s very good at absorbing impact and slowing down speeding objects depending on the angle the rider and bike impact it. If they come at it head-on, it is like a bumper in a pinball machine, but at any kind of angle it is very effective.
At the mile long tracks we go to, which are also used for horse racing, we identified the horse guardrail—which are very good for a 30 mile per hour horse, but very bad for a 100 mile per hour motorcycle—and we now line those horse guardrails with fencing and rubber dampers to absorb impact there. We’ve taken care of a number of the variables.
The other one, which we have done more recently, is we have identified the riders themselves. The feedback I’ve had from our senior accomplished riders down the years is that they’re very happy to ride at 130 miles per hour two inches from the next guy who is two inches away from the next guy, if they trust them. If they don’t trust them, like a rookie with a little bit of blood gone to his head, or adrenaline overload, this is where we identify the further risk is with new riders coming into the series.
What we did is we raised the minimum age for the twin-cylinder bikes to 18, regardless of talent. We have instituted a new program called The Road To AFT, which is where young riders and amateur riders can get experience racing at off-championship events before we put them in with the pros. And we’ve considerably raised the standards on how many races you have to have done in the prior season to qualify for a license the next year. And we look very closely at the transition of riders from class to class and we hold them back until we feel that they’ve got the experience to do it. Out of all of the initiatives we have taken, that has probably been the most effective. To try and have as small a gap of experience and approach between the riders on the grid and not to have young kids who are half fearful up against pros who are probably going to drag them into doing something that’s above their head.
In all of those areas we’ve really been quite diligent in focussing on safety. Partly because we care about the athletes, partly because we care about the future of the sport, and partly because we live in a society where attitudes are changing. I look at all of the news around parents in high school not allowing their kids to play football. Changes in design of equipment. In soccer now, there’s a whole global argument about whether children playing the game should be able to head the ball or not. All of this tells you that we are reexamining safety in all sports. As you said, American Flat Track really has got a lot of variables we need to deal with to ensure safety or to minimize risk while delivering an entertaining sport. It’s another one of those things like improving the fan experience, you never get to the end of the road.
One thing we brought in last year for the first time in flat track history was that we had trauma doctors attached to the series and travelled to every event and had a rapid response vehicle where they were sitting in the infield and they would be able to get to any incident first, before corner workers, before officials. They were able to make quick determinations about whether to move somebody or not, what to do with helmets, and so on and so forth. Touch wood, we didn’t really have to test that out last season. The doctors didn’t have to deal with any really serious incidents, but nonetheless they were there, and all of the feedback we had after speaking to doctors at MotoGP and MotoAmerica, was the first minute after the incident is the most critical. Having somebody making professional decisions as opposed to EMTs who are very experienced, but it’s not the same as having a trauma doctor there. That’s something we introduced for 2020 and will continue to have every season.
BB: If I could only attend one AFT event on the season calendar this year, which venue would you recommend I make it out to, and why?
ML: Cor, which is the best one? I would say either the Sacramento Mile or the Springfield Mile. They’re kind of the holy grail races. And if you haven’t been to a pro flat track race, you have that Oh My God moment when you see these bikes hurtling down at over 130 miles per hour not really touching the dirt, then suddenly all of them throw it sideways into turn one and you think it’s all over, but then oh no they made it through!
BB: It’s helpful that Sacramento is only about 90 minutes from me, so I’ll be there. [note: Sacramento Mile races are in May, so unless I get vaccinated between now and then, I’ll be watching on television, actually.]
ML: It’s my personal favorite, because it’s a fierce race, and that northern California crowd absolutely know what they’re looking at.
BB: And finally, the toughest question on the whole roster, what do you ride?
ML: What do I actually ride or what do I own? I have a good number of bikes that I own that remind me of how fast I used to be. And consequently I don’t ride many of them very much anymore. I’ve got three Ducatis, I’ve got three Hondas, one of which is an ex-race bike. I have a Laverda, an Italian brand that was never very visible in the U.S. but it’s an awesome bike. Three cylinder, 1000cc, four stroke engine, great bike from the 1970s. I just bought the bike quite recently, a little race bike. Generally speaking my bikes are sport bikes, but I am hankering after an adventure bike, maybe like a Honda Africa Twin or maybe even the new Harley looks interesting. I definitely want to get on it because when I first saw it I thought it was a logical extension from Harley’s kind of grand transcontinental touring bikes, which is a very American thing. Then I see the adventure tourer, and I see the aluminum bags and the upright seating position and the 1200 cc engine and think that might be very interesting. I’m transitioning from sport bikes to adventure bikes as I get older.
BB: I see that happening a lot! Well, thank you for giving us so much of your time, good luck with the 2021 season!
ML: Thank you! My pleasure.
So there it is. American Flat Track is already pretty exciting to watch, but knowing a bit more of the inside track of how it all works makes me more excited to watch this season. It would seem that the sport is in good hands with Michael Lock at the handlebars, because he’s a true motorcycle enthusiast with an impressive CV and track record. I hope that his five year vision for the sport comes true by 2026, though I hope he and the OEMs all ramp up their expectations for electric flat track, because it’s honestly a totally rad time, and fits really well with the demands of flat track.
Get a little dirt on the tires, kick it out sideways, and motor on through the 2021 season, AFT competitors. You’ve got a bright future ahead of you.